A Pakistani journalist, writer, and public policy practitioner, Raza Rumi’s life exemplifies the intersection of the personal and the political. In 2014, his work in broadcast media brought him under surveillance of Islamists in Pakistan. He narrowly survived an assassination attempt by a militia linked to the Taliban, and fled to the United States. He is currently writing a memoir about his persecution and exile.
In this interview with SampsoniaWay.org, Raza Rumi talks about his many shifting identities and how the past informs and influences them: as a writer, as a Pakistani living in exile, and a traveler through the histories that have shaped him.
Raza Rumi is currently teaching at Ithaca College and is the ICORN writer-in-residence of City of Asylum in Ithaca, the United States.
“I Don’t Identify with Either”: Exile and Persecution
In 2014, your work calling for secular reform in Pakistan’s politics led to an attempt on your life by Islamic fundamentalists, an experience you describe in the essay “On the Run,” for Aeon Magazine. What was it like to write about an assassination attempt on your life?
To be honest, writing that piece was very difficult. It took me months to put it together. I had all the materials and ordinarily I’m a quick writer, but this piece was so emotionally jammed that it was difficult for me to actually recall all the events that took place before the assassination attempt and what happened thereafter. Writing it was a difficult professional act.
Ultimately, the process was cathartic. In fact, now I am working on a memoir expanding on this essay and its themes, going a little deeper and broader into the context of Pakistan. Working on that is a kind of reconnection with myself, part of a catharsis as an act of storytelling.
I’ve always been wary of the genre of writing in exile, considering it kind of stylized and hyped. Now that I am experiencing exile, I relate to writing by people like Edward Said and others who have written about the idea of belonging. My engagement with Pakistan, through the media and other public forums, made me realize how difficult it is to exercise free expression and be both a writer and a broadcaster. It also makes me question about my belonging in Pakistan. I also feel that perhaps I am a “foreigner” in the United States. My memoir is about locating oneself, and uncertainty about what it means to belong to a place, and what is home.
How has exile changed your sense of home?
Exile totally altered the idea of home. I have lived abroad before and worked in different countries. There was always a notion of home being Pakistan and in particular the city where I come from. Not anymore. My sense of home is vague and in emotional flux. I am here but am I really? Do I really belong here? And is this my home? I don’t know the answers.
In these few months I do feel as though I’ve left Pakistan and left it forever. It’s definitely not easy to turn your back, even if you want to, because one’s identity and whole notion of belonging to a particular time and place and nationality is so embedded. Writing about Pakistan is driven, in part, by the fact that because I am affiliated with a paper there, I have to stay in touch and write and engage, and see that it has improved so that perhaps one day I can return. There are all of these conflicts, but I cannot turn my back to Pakistan.
At the same time, after all these years, I have come to the conclusion that due to technological advancements and the mingling of cultural groups and ideas, identity is no longer static. A person can actually belong to many places.
How has exile changed your publishing process?
When I was writing Delhi By Heart, my editor was the person who was most encouraging. When I sent her a chapter she said, “Wow this really works, and you need to do it.” It was a really important relationship. I should also add that a few friends in Delhi also shaped my writing and immensely helped in the process. If they had not really pushed me enough I might not have finished the book. I also managed to get a very good editor who looked at the early chapters and helped me go through the process of writing. That was a different sort of relationship because that was more of a reality check engagement, where she would tell me regularly, “This particular part does not really work, it sounds untrue, it needs to go away.” So that relationship was critical.
Now that I am exile, I need to rediscover a new set of relationships for my memoir. This is more to do with finding a reshaped connection with myself. I need to go and hunt for a literary agent. I did get some potential agents a year ago and realized that the market here is totally different. In North America, as a Pakistani writing by and large about Pakistan, not everyone is going to want to read about it. There is a niche, and it’s more competitive and it’s more globalized. The power of writing would kind of determine the book’s success. The voice will have to attract both readers and publishers.
A person can actually belong to many places.
How has being a member of an exiled community of Pakistanis influence your continued connection to Pakistan?
After arriving in the United States I was gradually introduced to many people from the exiled Pakistani community. Many of them have been journalists, writers, poets, and academics who had to leave due to state repression or other threats that they faced. Our community exists in a liminal space: we live here and we work here and carry on our lives, but are still engaged with home. But is home willing to listen to us and our voice? And does it really matter?
I get feedback on articles I write saying, “Oh, you are there in the US so what would you know? Or, why would you be concerned?” There are people in Pakistan who see the idea of leaving as a betrayal in the patriotic framework. This feeds into the “traitor” campaign that was launched against me while I was working in Pakistan. Such characters think that whatever your country is about or however bad circumstances are, you should not shun your country because the act of leaving is a political act as well.
In March 2015, the anniversary of the attack, I wrote an op-ed for my newspaper in Pakistan. Afterwards there were so many negative comments on the newspaper’s Facebook page, saying, “Why is he complaining? He has run away!” I wonder what they would do in my place: just stay there and be in more trouble, danger, or dead? The insensitivity on the part of some people – usually as a result of national identity, but sometimes because my views as a liberal, secular humanist are not the mainstream – has shocked me and has changed my whole view of the world.
How has being “othered” by members of the Muslim community changed your relationship to Islam?
I was a fierce critic of Islamic extremism through my essays, which resulted in all of these threats. After coming to the United States, I have seen Islamaphobia in the streets of the West. That has rattled me. I am irked by the generalizations that are made about Muslims or Islam itself, such as Islam is inherently violent, or the disturbing rhetoric from American politicians about sending people back or not letting them into the country. I was on one side, and now I am in the mirror image of what I was going through in Pakistan. I find myself kind of lost and befuddled between these two strands of thought: Islamism and Islamaphobia. I do not really identify with either.
Writing His Roots
How did the process of writing Delhi, as you did in this book, change your understanding of the city?
The book is essentially about Delhi, but it also became a means to show my identity as a South Asian Muslim. I realized that my own culture and identity was linked to the city of Delhi. But the city was no longer a city that we claimed. India and Pakistan have been rivals since Independence in 1947 from the British rule. The book became an exciting project: here I was trying to trace and to locate my cultural roots in a city that was no longer accessible, no longer part of the national framework.
At the same time, by doing so I was also challenging the exclusive, particular Pakistani nationalism. Pakistan defines itself as a place which is not India. Everything that is not Indian is by default Pakistani; and this is partly fictional.
More importantly, when I entered into the process of writing Delhi by Heart, I realized that actually constructing a narrative in a new city, a place I didn’t know that well, is difficult. The writer has so many challenges in claiming linkage to that place while not being a part of that place.
How did Delhi’s landmarks encourage your use of metaphor and figurative language?
When I visited Delhi for the first time, it was 2005, and I was working for the Asian Development Bank. I went for work with a big team. All day long we would be in this five-star hotel or in a government office working on a project on our laptops. In the mornings I would wake up early and go for a walk or a run with a guidebook to see the sights.
What struck me was that the monuments of Delhi, the spatial form of Old Delhi and historic Delhi, were all very metaphorical. So I would stand at a crossing waiting for a car to move, and I would look at the right, and there would be an old monument. I would look in front and there would be this stunning medieval archway. And on the left I would see a modern colonial building. And all of that, that architecture, turned into a life-sized metaphor for my past. And that’s what really fascinated me.
My favorite landmark is a place called Humayan’s tomb, who was the second Mughal emperor, and he’s buried there. He had a very short rule and an unfortunate life, but his son, Akbar the Great, built a huge, royal, beautiful monument, which is actually said to be the inspiration for Taj Mahal. Humayan’s tomb is the original concept and the aesthetics are raw as well. By building that monument, Humayan’s son was actually announcing the start of the Mughal dynasty, which went on for then centuries and achieved a lot of grandeur and did many social and political experiments. But then interestingly the last Mughal Emperor was also captured from Humayan’s tomb in 1857, when the British crushed a mutiny or rebellion by Indians and established the final rule over the country. It’s a beautiful monument with gardens and fountains and you can walk and you can get inspired. At the same time, is has this whole metaphorical meaning. It is the start and end of a dynasty. And guess what: the British colonial rule was also kind of formally starting from that point. It’s all very much the kind of spatial metaphor over-layered by history and politics.
This was a travel into unknown territory and that’s what fascinated me
In the preface to Delhi By Heart, you say: “Unlearning was a rare gift that I am tremendously thankful for.” What do you want your readers to unlearn in reading this book?
Much of Delhi by Heart is my personal journey and discovery of a composite identity. While I’m talking about society and the ancient past and monuments and shrines, I’m also talking about me shedding some of the prejudices that I had received from my formal education in school.
Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, Pakistan has constructed its identity and nationalism in opposition to India. Some Indian hyper-nationalists also do that — everything that is Pakistani is not Indian. It’s that kind of silly, arbitrary, imagined line which challenges almost a thousand years of history of Hindus and Muslims living together in South Asia. And which just one event like the Partition of India in 1947 cannot really undo, although it may begin a new process of “modern” nationalism.
Unlearning was that particular part where I unlearned many, many prejudices or negative stereotypes about the neighboring country and “enemy” country. This was a travel into unknown territory and that’s what fascinated me, and led to the book.
In that line I wasn’t preaching to readers, but suggesting that a lot of received wisdom, or officially sanctioned truths that we often hear through society and institutions such as education, must be challenged. And one way to challenge them is actually to have your own personal process of learning and unlearning. This is even valid in our individual and personal lives — things we do, repeatedly in our relationships and our homes, in our personal affairs, or just to ourselves. When we are being true to ourselves, we need to unlearn some things that we imbibed.
How did you decide on the story’s shifting structure?
I did not think of the structure when beginning. I started off in a very personal sort of way. The first two chapters were all about me, and the idea of travel and crossing a boundary and stepping into an unknown, new domain. I realized that I needed to do more. It is a book on the city, so my reader needed to know more about the city: its key features, its highlights, and its architecture. At some points I said, “Okay. I have to lock in the structure of my writing and cannot take any more liberties with my writing.” Otherwise, I would never have been able to finish that book, because it just kept changing.
I set essential areas or themes that I was going to explore. Once I decided on those I said, “Now maybe I should just fill in all of the empty spaces, the annotated bibliography or outline.” I completed that, and then I imagined myself as a reader. Often, I would read my draft through the eyes of a reader who didn’t know too much about the place, or who knew too much about the place. Both are potential readers. There are people in Delhi who know their city very well, so I was wary that I should not come across as bumbling fool. Then I also realized that there are the people who don’t know too much about it, so then, I had to ask, “Is it the right level of information or is it too much?” So I switched roles both as a writer and a reader.
It is nonfiction, so I want to be clear but then I also want to be practical. My style changes and shifts, from very deeply personal musings and existential rants, to standard observations. Then I gave into another kind of narrative, where it becomes a conversational story. That has been noted by a lot of reviewers of the book and by all of the readers who reached out to me, saying that what they valued about the book was the continual shifting and my use of multiple genres.
I do intend to move to fiction, hopefully, at some point, because all those stories are also there. But I personally feel that there is a lot of fiction being written, particularly from South Asia and Pakistan. But not many creative nonfiction books come out or are actually published. Fiction is kind of exalted in literary world, but it also has its limits. With nonfiction work, one can actually directly address some of the themes that one would indirectly address in fiction. I wanted to be more direct while I was writing this book.
What would you have written about Delhi if this was a work of fiction?
I would have more written about a character I mention in some detail in the book: Prince Dara Shikoh who was a late 17th century prince, son of Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal. Dara, who is well known, was the eldest of Emperor Shah Jahan’s sons and the successor to the throne, but his younger brother Aurangzeb was a more devout, puritanical Muslim, who took over the throne after killing him and his other brothers. It was a bloody battle for succession. Dara was whom I was actually researching. He was an amazing character, very ahead of his times. You must read in the news today about all of these interfaith conferences taking place, interfaith workshops, etcetera. Dara did that in the 17th century and he assembled leading theological experts from all religions. He got sacred texts translated: the Old Testament Bible, the Hindu sacred text into Persian, which was the official language. And he tried to find common ground between these various faiths. He was intrigued by the question of how the narrow vision of a clergy leads to a very strict definition of a religion and its adherence, and creates religious conflict, which has been a source of wars and violence in human history.
Dara was also a patron of the arts, and wrote a lot poetry himself. Imagine a royal prince having all the time to write and write, to be a poet, a memoirist, a chronicler, a translator, a debater. The murder of Dara was actually killing the secularist spirit of the Muslims in India. Now Aurangzeb, who took over, is celebrated by the state of Pakistan as the hero because he’s this good, devout Muslim who killed his pantheistic or blasphemous brother. And the reality is that Dara was not a blasphemer. He was trying to present a more secularist, more inclusive version of Islamic faith and practice in India, which I guess is relevant — and much needed — even today.
Explorations of the Self
How has your shifting identity correlated with the shifting identity of Pakistan?
Two years ago I was a public broadcaster and an editor, and managing think tanks in Pakistan. Now I am being referred to as a persecuted writer. We mustn’t take anything for granted, or must not conclude and close in on who we are because we have so much more than these ascribed identities. My identity has undergone change: I made it happen and events made it happen.
When I joined the civil service of Pakistan, it was my first career and I was only 24 years old. I had so much authority and position of power and influence. People would say, you will always be an outcast, you’ll always be the other. When I left Asian Development Bank and came back to Pakistan to become a writer and a journalist, and I started expressing my opinions, I got branded as a liberal. Liberals are “others” in the mainstream conservative Pakistan. They are not too different from America, except we have a tiny number. Liberals in Pakistan always have to defend our views, always had to defend the idea that we believe in equality, we believe in human rights, we believe in human rights without any qualification, we don’t believe in the blasphemy law, that the blasphemy law should be repealed. I had to face all these attacks, all these on social media and on live TV debates. One day I was on TV, I remember and I went into a couple of seconds of reverie, because somebody said, “Liberals like you shouldn’t be in Pakistan. Go to a western country.” And I just sat there and said, my god, now I’m a ‘liberal’. Limiting ourselves or others to labels is such a dangerous, and such a crazy game.
I think, in the context of India and Pakistan, and in the context of many other places as well — not just Rwanda and Burundi– religious identity was used as a political instrument by the British when they colonized India. In the late 19th century, they started a census in India by which they asked people to identify themselves according to their religion. So there’s the first time that people who were heterodox, were identifying themselves as Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and so on. This process became irreversible, and led to the assertion of religious identity of Muslims creating Pakistan in the name of their separate Muslim mess.
Pakistan has grappled with that identity complex, issue, even now. If you ask a young Pakistani, he or she is confused: is he or she a Muslim first, because Pakistan was made in the name of religion, or is he a Pakistani first? What about a non-Muslim Pakistani? What would be his or her identity? When I went to India, I went on a Visa, with my own passport, my own history, my own prejudices, and my textbook nationalism I was seen as a Pakistani. I said look, we are the same color, we have the same DNA, the same language, by and large, at least for a lot of India, we have the same kind of food, the same music, and the same bloody monuments. And if you met an Indian Muslim, the same Sufi shrines to revere. Where does that line of identity come from? It is from the nationalistic project.
Now that I am working on my memoir, this identity business really afflicts me. I’d always wanted to shed that narrow identity in my own regional context. I’ve been in the United States for two years now almost, and I do feel that the question of identity is very prevalent here. Then there’s the race thing. I’m brown. I’m an alien. I’m a Muslim. I’m a Pakistani from a dangerous country that is on the global headlines. And I do reflect.
I’ve been very comfortable here and most Americans I meet are warm, hospitable and concerned, but I do wonder, what would be my relationship, or what is my relationship to this society in terms of my identity?
Memory, as a kind of existential, fleeting moment, is totally in your control: it belongs to you.
How did you reconcile your secularism with your attraction to poets and works of great minds that address the divine?
Urdu poetry follows the Persian style, metaphors, and ambiance that poets create. They deal with parallel indulgences or parallel forms of love. There’s human love: the poet addresses the beloved in all sorts of glorious ways with the beloved having lips like rose petals. Through seeking worldly or love for the flesh, the poet is also transcending and transcending beyond the human being and seeking divine grace or love.
Most of these poets were secularists in their own way. For example, in Islam, in most Islamic jurisprudence alcohol is not liked, but in Persian poetry and in Urdu poetry you have countless references to poets drinking wine or being intoxicated on wine. Now, is it real wine? Is wine a metaphor for being high on love or high on enchantment?
These poems are explorations of the self. I treat these poets and these indulgences like that because I find the language they weave and the kind of similes and metaphors and moods they construct very exciting.
Much of it is inspired by the concept of love as written, practiced, and documented by the Sufis. The Islamic poetic tradition has a long history, centuries old, embedded within Islam itself. It’s not really focused on because war, jihad, violence, conquering territories, and subjugating people makes for good, worldly success. In reality the core of Islamic tradition has this important idea of loving God through his creation. If you love human beings, if you love plants, if you love animals, if you love nature, you’re actually loving God. If you pay tribute to a human being, you’re actually paying tribute to not just that human being but also his or her creator. I find it beautiful. I am always inspired by such aesthetics.
How does Punjabi identity influence your work?
I’m a Punjabi, belonging to that particular part of Pakistan that was once India before 1947. Obviously, we have a very strong tradition of everyday proverbs and language being inspired by the Sufi poets. Several famous Sufi poets are from Lahore, where I am from. Shah Hussain, one of the finest Sufi poets, is buried there. He’s not buried alone, but with Madho, who was a Hindu by faith, but he was so inspired by Shah Hussain’s poetry that he became his disciple. And after Shah Hussain died, he wanted to be buried next to him. There is also attribution that they perhaps were lovers at some point as well.
Now see, Islamic Sufi tradition, forbidden love — all of these things indicate that our past and our earlier and literary ancestors were far more inclusive, far more pluralistic and humanistic than we have become. And part of my work, not just in books but also in my journalistic writing and what I was doing in broadcast, was also to invoke this again and again. To say look, we were not like that. We have become something else, which is totally artificial and not linked to our ethos. Of course it’s a separate debate whether we should go back to that original imagined self or not; was it real or not? But the reality is that the Sufi poets of the Punjab give us a glimpse of a very tolerant and a very pluralistic society, and a very feeling form of a human being compared to what is now known as a Punjabi identity.
Much of your work concerns temporality and memory. What is the function of memory in understanding your experience?
Memory has always been a very important impetus for writing, and other things. I’ve dabbled in amateurish artwork, so there again I invoke memory. This summer I plan to do a bit of things with my old photographs as an installation, and memory is at the core. And I think it comes from the fact that memory, as a kind of existential, fleeting moment, is totally in your control: it belongs to you.
You receive ideas from here or there: you’ve read Marx and you’ve read Hegel and you’ve read Adam Smith. But memory is your own territory. And I feel that those little territories, when they combine and turn into collective memories, or when they’re doctored or engineered by states, or by the powerful interests, they take another shape. Often states rewrite memories.
For example, now that I’m learning about the US, I see the collective memory on slavery is being reshaped through the Black Lives Matter movement. There are individual memories collecting and aggregating, because the collective space is reclaiming that from what the American state has imagined itself to be, or the white savior liberation theory of creating a great country.
Memory is also something that you can play with. It is both tangible and intangible, it’s moldable, and it can mold you as well in that interactive process.